I don’t want to depress you, but none of us gets to live happily ever after. It’s not just cynics like me who can’t sit still for five minutes: none of us does.
I talk about sex myths a lot – the idea that faking orgasms makes you a bad person, or that you can’t be a feminist and suck dick – but some of the most pernicious myths out there are around relationships themselves.
Happily ever after
Once upon a time there lived a little girl. She was slightly scruffy, very enthusiastic, and if you wanted to make her day you could either tell her she was great at ballet (she wasn’t) or offer to let her read aloud from her book of ’101 jokes that only children find funny.’ If you asked her what she wanted, she’d probably have said ‘a pony’, but a rainbow-coloured one, because no one wants an ordinary old pony. She believed that one day her prince would come.
Years later, that little girl grew up to be a teenager. The rainbow pony was replaced with an overwhelming desire for a black motorbike, and the skill to ride it. If you wanted to make her day you’d tell her that the purple streaks in her hair made her look a bit witchy, or that – despite being nearly six foot tall – she was graceful like a ballerina (she wasn’t). She believed that one day her prince would come. This time, though, she was a bit more realistic. She thought the prince would be unlikely to wear armour, and imagined him instead in tight black jeans and a t-shirt that clung deliciously to his stomach. He’d probably play the guitar, and read Wittgenstein.
Now, though, that girl is thirty. You can make her day surprisingly easily – with a pint of cider or an offer to do her washing up. She loves fucking, reading, and being comforted when she thinks she’s made a dreadful faux pas, and she fancies the kind of guys who sit in dark rooms writing computer code. She knows there are no princes.
‘Settle down’ forever and ever
Of course there aren’t any princes - even William and Harry are probably twats behind closed doors (or sometimes even in front of them). Besides, I don’t actually want the kind of idealised partner the fairy tale offers. Someone riding into my life to sweep me off my feet, removing all of my responsibilities and replacing them with some a saccharine, loved-up suburban ideal makes me as uncomfortable as it does sceptical. If my prince actually did come, I’d be less likely to fall at his feet than to ask him what he was selling.
And yet the myth of a ‘happy ever after’ lives on in the way we talk about relationships. People have always told me – since I was that tiny girl doing rubbish pirouhettes in my tutu – that one day I’d ‘settle down’. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty odd phrase - implying that my entire life up until the ‘settling down’ point has been an irrelevant stew – nothing more than the bubbling experiment that forms me into a complete human being. One day when I’m not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too adventurous, I will pledge my life to someone else who’ll live out their days with me in a tranquil, almost opiate joy.
Well, bollocks to that. Because even if it were desirable (which it’s not, in my opinion – imagine a lifetime of cotton-wool calm), it’s not even close to the truth. I’ve been in a few monogamous relationships and – while wonderful, enjoyable, loving things – not one of them would ever be described as ‘settled’, or even moving towards that.
If pushed, I’ll say we’ve sometimes been ‘comfortable’, in which ‘comfortable’ could be defined as ‘haven’t had any blazing rows/worries about money/collapsing bathroom ceilings and job losses and panic attacks’ for a month or two. But even with this level of comfort – even if you love each other – you’re bound to hit a dodgy patch one day that has you shouting at each other in the kitchen over who forgot to buy the milk. Or, to pick a less trivial issue, even if you feel like you’ve ‘settled down’, a day will come when you meet someone who isn’t your partner, but who makes your chest tight and your stomach flip and you wonder ‘Oh God Oh God what if…?’
And we’ll all be sixteen forever…
These examples are just a couple out of many things that happen on a daily basis. And yet the word ‘settled’ invites us to keep striving for something permanent and tranquil – as if any relationship is a lake, and if we wait long enough the fish will stop swimming and the insects stop landing, the wind will stop blowing and eventually the surface will be smooth like glass.
Well, it isn’t fucking true. There’s no such thing as ‘settling down’. There’s deciding, and committing, and loving, and there’s a sense of security and relief that comes from not having to wade through crap responses to your online dating profile any more, but ‘settling down’? For ever and ever amen? I don’t think it’s real.
If we pretend it is then we end up with billions of disappointed humans who strive for relationship tranquility, when what they should actually be striving for is enjoyment. Love, passion, fun, all that jazz. Sometimes it’s calm, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s settled, and sometimes it’s shaky and nervewracking and the kind of thing that keeps you awake staring into the dark and wondering how you can make things right.
There are no princes: only humans. And I’m still quite shit at ballet.